When a relative recently made a disparaging remark about blacks to Arica Prejean in the presence of her children, Prejean immediately repudiated it.
“There was no hesitation,” said the 28-year-old, who is white and lives in Lafayette, La. She considers speaking out against racism part of her job as a parent.
“I own a staffing agency. Every race comes through our door,” she said.
“It’s the ignorance that’s being passed down from generation to generation that’s not making things any better.”
Many parents struggle with what to do when someone makes a racial slur in front of their children. Should they set an example by speaking out and showing that such comments aren’t acceptable? Or would a confrontation be too uncomfortable and magnify the insult? When the offending person is a friend or loved one, things get even more complicated.
“It definitely needs to be addressed,” said psychologist Lawrence Cohen, who writes parenting articles for NickJr.com, the Web site for the children’s television network. But it’s important to do so in a way that doesn’t upset the child.
“Don’t start hurling nasty names or the child will be very confused,” said Cohen. “If we’re hostile and angry, they’re not going to learn very well.”
If you’re able to calmly ask the person to refrain from speaking that way in front of your child, do so. If not, wait until you’ve cooled off, Cohen recommended.
When you do broach the issue, use “I” statements to make your point, recommended Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta and author of “Can We Talk About Race” (Simmons College/Beacon Press, 2007).
For example, she suggests saying, “I felt that way or I used to think that way.” Then say what changed your mind and add, “Now I feel it’s important for me to say something.”
This approach works because it does not accuse the speaker, she said.
If comments persist, let your relationship with the person determine how you respond, said Carmen Van Kerckhove, a diversity trainer who runs the blog www.antiracistparent.com.
If the speaker is an acquaintance, you might be able to stop associating with him or her. If it’s a relative, you might have to threaten to limit contact with the children.
“Parents need to make decisions about how important it is for the child to have that person in their life,” Van Kerckhove said.
Prejean said she has told family members: “If you can’t keep that to yourself when my kids are around, we’re not going to bring them around.”
Exposing children to people of all backgrounds is critical in creating open minds, experts say.
“Real experiences, real knowledge of people is the only thing that breaks down those stereotypes,” said Cohen.
Liz Dwyer of Los Angeles, who is black, said she likes her city’s diversity; her two boys, Olinga and Toussaint Bolden, play with Hispanic, white, Chinese and Iranian kids. But Dwyer has had to chastise relatives for insensitive remarks about Hispanics. She said she tells them, “That’s what they used to say about black people.”
Parents also need to tell children that racism exists and explain what it is, Van Kerckhove added.
“The most important thing is for parents to start talking about race early on,” she said. “Parents underestimate the likelihood of kids hearing racial slurs.”
Prejean was disheartened when 6-year-old Kameron came home from school and asked why one of his friends was getting teased about having black skin. She and her husband, Ian, explained that skin comes in all different shades, like hair.
“We did tell him if somebody says that in front of you, it’s OK to say something because maybe their mom or dad hasn’t told them it’s the same thing as different color of hair,” she said. “I think if it happened again, now that he understands, he’d speak up.”
Most of all, be honest with your children, recommended Keith Morton, who blogs about being a black dad at Fatherdad.com.
“You can’t be afraid of the topic,” said Morton, of New York. “Fear of the topic creates ignorance, and that’s no way to live.”
HOW TO RESPOND
Tips for parents on helping children handle racist comments:
** Your children will face racism, so prepare them for it. Don’t assume that race is a non-issue for your family.
** Forget trying to be colorblind; it’s not possible. As NAACP Chairman Julian Bond says, colorblindness means being “blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.”
** Make conversations about race relaxed and frequent. Don’t wait for “a very special moment.” Conversations about race should be as normal and casual in your family as discussions about “American Idol.”
** Lead by example. Actions speak louder than words. If you tell your children they should accept everyone, regardless of race, but you only socialize with people from one race, what message do you think your children will absorb?
** Be aware of your own biases and privileges, and never stop working to overcome them.